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FAMILY LAW 61: FINDING NO ERRORS WARRANTING REVERSAL, THE COURT AFFIRMED THE TRIAL COURT’S ORDER THAT APPELLANT’S OUTSTANDING CHILD SUPORT ARREARAGE WAS STILL COLLECTIBLE.

BASIC FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Appellant and his ex-wife, Appellee, divorced in 1994. The consent judgment of divorce ordered Appellant to pay child support for his two children. In 2001, Appellant pleaded guilty to several criminal offenses and was sentenced to 6 to 15 years’ imprisonment. At the time of his incarceration, Appellant owed $29,455 in accrued child support. In July 2015, Appellant wrote to the FOC to explain that he had been in prison since 2001, planned to apply for disability benefits when he was released, and did not anticipate being able to pay the sizable child support arrearage, which then totaled nearly $90,000. On March 17, 2016, the FOC responded to Spencer’s letter, indicating that the FOC reviewed his case and planned to close it. In pertinent part, the FOC’s letter said, “Your account will be adjusted to reflect a zero balance and your case will be closed.” Three days later, the FOC sent a second letter indicating that the case would be closed in 60 days. However, on or about May 16, 2016, the FOC sent Appellant a third letter to advise him that “the previous arrearages were added back to the case” at Appellee’s request in light of Appellant’s impending release from prison. In February 2017, the FOC obtained a show-cause order in the divorce case requiring Appellant to appear before the court to explain why he should not be held in contempt for failing to satisfy his child support obligation. Most significantly for purposes of this appeal, Appellant maintained that the FOC’s March 17, 2016 correspondence constituted a release of his child support obligation that could not be unilaterally rescinded absent fraud or mutual mistake. Appellant also argued that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to enforce the child support order because his arrearage had been lawfully released by the FOC. In July 2017, the trial court entered an order retroactively abating Spencer’s child support beginning May 29, 2007, because Appellant “notified the Friend of the Court of his incarceration at that time but no action was taken by the Friend of the Court to abate support pursuant to statute.” Over two years later, the trial court entered an order finding Appellant in contempt for failure to exercise due diligence in paying all or some of his child support arrearage, which was $75,879.10 in accrued child support.

REVIEW OF CHILD SUPPORT ORDERS UNDER MCL 552.517

Appellant first contends that he was denied due process by the FOC’s failure to comply with MCL 552.517 addressing periodic review of support orders. We disagree because Appellant failed to demonstrate entitlement to relief. An issue is generally preserved for appeal if it was raised in or decided by the trial court. This issue is unpreserved because Appellant did not challenge the validity of the support order below on the basis of the FOC’s noncompliance with its statutory review duty. Irrespective of any obligation imposed on FOC by MCL 552.517(1)(f)(v)(B), when Appellant challenged the FOC’s attempts to collect the outstanding child support arrearage in 2017, a referee acknowledged that the FOC was notified of Spencer’s incarceration on May 29, 2007, and “did not suspend child support during [Spencer’s] incarceration pursuant to statute.” The referee therefore recommended that the trial court suspend Spencer’s child support obligation from May 29, 2007, until the youngest child turned 18 years old. On July 5, 2017, the trial court accepted the referee’s recommendation and retroactively abated Spencer’s support obligation beginning May 29, 2007. Because the retroactive abatement was made effective before the FOC was required by statute to review and petition the court for modification, the trial court already remedied any harm arising from the FOC’s noncompliance with any statutory duty in 2007. Thus, we need not address the due process challenge, and Appellant is not entitled to further relief.

SUBJECT-MATTER JURISDICTION

Next, Appellant argues that the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction because the FOC released the “judgment lien obligation” on March 17, 2016, and could not unilaterally rescind the release. Appellant contends that no court has addressed the merits of this jurisdictional challenge arising from the FOC’s purported release, so neither collateral estoppel nor res judicata bar resolution of this issue. “We review de novo as a question of law whether a trial court has subject-matter jurisdiction over a claim.” Appellant does not identify a constitutional provision, statute, or court rule that grants exclusive jurisdiction to another court or tribunal and, instead, argues that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to enforce the child support order because the FOC purportedly released the outstanding arrearage. Appellant’s position reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of subject-matter jurisdiction, which “refers to a court’s power to act and authority to hear and determine a case.” Pursuant to MCL 600.1021, “the family division of circuit court has sole and exclusive jurisdiction over” certain cases, including “[c]ases of divorce and ancillary matters as set forth in” the Friend of the Court Act and the Support and Parenting Time Enforcement Act. MCL 600.1021(1)(a)(v) and (viii). A court is not divested of subject-matter jurisdiction on the basis of facts germane to the particular case before it. Thus, the trial court’s jurisdiction could not be divested by the execution of a release. Furthermore, Appellant’s consistent reliance on the FOC’s “release” as a defense to enforcement of his child support arrearage is without merit. The consent judgment of divorce provided that Appellant would pay Appellee, through the FOC, specified sums for the support of their minor children. While the FOC may have been responsible for processing Appellant’s payments, the debt arising from Appellant’s child support obligation was clearly owed to Appellee. The Friend of the Court Act recognizes this distinction by providing that “closure of a friend of the court case does not release a party from the party’s obligations imposed in the underlying domestic relations matter.” MCL 552.505a(5). The FOC simply did not have authority to release Appellant from his obligation to pay the child support owed to Appellee.

ADVICE TO CLIENTS FACING ISSUES IN FAMILY LAW CASES

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